Monday, November 7, 2011

How the Other Half Does Glacier Tourism


            I got into Christchurch a little after midnight – six hours late, thanks to a delay at LAX - and got through customs and immigration in about fifteen minutes, which is possibly the fastest I’ve ever gone through immigration, anywhere.   I got into the hostel, where a sleepy manager pointed me in a direction of my shared room, mentioning that I had to go through the back garden to get there.   Unfortunately, there were about three different doors leading off of the back garden, and no lights out there, so I couldn’t read any numbers or signs.   All of the doors led to what appeared to be separate buildings, and as I tried the doors, I was a little afraid that I was actually attempting to break into someone’s house.   I went back into the main building, not soon enough to catch the manager before he went back to bed, and grabbed a girl who’d just come out of the shower and asked her if she knew where room twelve was.   She came down with me, but if anything she could see even less in the dark than I could because she didn’t have her glasses with her.   Fortunately, she had a better idea of which adjacent building was actually part of the hostel– so I didn’t have to try breaking in to all three adjoining buildings to find out which one would actually accept my key.   

            I woke up vaguely refreshed at around six thirty, and spent most of the day walking around the city park and botanic gardens, with a slight detour to a big mall a mile away to buy a local mobile phone.   The weather was pretty darn close to perfect – sunny and warm, with a bit of wind to keep it from feeling too hot.    The park was very nice – at some point in the past it had engulfed a golf course, and there were lots of signs along the path warning of flying golf balls.   How knowing about the golf balls might help me avoid being hit by one, I’m not really sure, but I appreciate the effort.   There were also two small stands of huge maritime pine trees, with a sign saying they had been planted in the 1870s.    Most of the trees in the park were pretty incredible – big, rambling numbers with knotty bark.   The botanic gardens were also really nice – there was a small stand of native forest that had been allowed to run wild so to speak, with ferns cropping up all over the understory.   There was also a formal rose garden, a heather garden that looked withering in the heat, and a bunch of hedges and rhododendrons and azaleas.   The rhododendrons seemed to be a tourist attraction in their own right – I saw a bunch of people with tripods, large lenses and polarizers very soberly setting up angles and taking pictures of the flowers.   Ducks were all over the place – mostly mallards, interspersed with a few European and native species, all happily hybridizing away.   There were some punting boats running up and down the small river than ran through the park, as well as a few canoes, manned by people who looked like they knew what they were doing, and a few paddlewheel boats, manned by people who looked like they didn’t.   

            I caught a bus out of Christchurch in the afternoon, and rode for four hours across the width of the island to the west coast.   The mountains were pretty spectacular, the foliage changing from a sheep-dominated grass and heather environment on the dry eastern side, and getting progressively more green and forested (or maybe here the correct term is ‘ferned’) as we got to the west.   The drive was slightly terrifying, less to do with the condition of the road as with the speed of the driver.   Obviously, he was still driving slower than the locals, because the bus was passed at regular intervals by other vehicles.   They seemed to be operating on the Alaskan principle that since there is so little traffic on the road, the odds of meeting an oncoming car while passing on a blind curve are low enough to make this tactic an acceptable risk.   Also, all of the bridges here are one lane, with signs indicating which direction has the right of way.   I’ve been told that the roads are built this way because it’s cheaper to replace them when they get washed out.   On a few of the bridges, the one lane of pavement also overlapped a row of train rails.   I am assuming that in those instances, the train gets the right of way – though this wasn’t specifically stated in the sign.   

            Easily, the most impressive part of the drive was the two or three miles of road immediately after the town of Arthur’s Pass.   Basically, they built the road down the middle of an avalanche chute.   In a few places, there is actually a roof built over the road to catch the rockfall that would otherwise be tumbling right onto the pavement.   Another such arch channels a waterfall, sluicing it over the road and letting it plummet to the bottom on the far side.   

            I left Greymouth early the next morning, and drove down the west coast, where the landscape had changed from a sheep-dominant ecosystem to a cow-dominant one.   I’ve also seen highland cattle, alpacas, and deer (of the farmed variety) since I’ve been here.   After three hours of driving through progressively wet and ferny foliage, I arrived in Franz Josef, where I was to interview for a job the next day.   

            My basic impression of Franz Josef is that it’s the New Zealand version of the Denali National Park entrance area –the locals refer to it as Glitter Gulch.   The gulch resembles a small town that exists entirely to sell t-shirts, accommodation, food, espresso coffee, and adventure activities to the passing hordes of  out-of-state tourists.   Glitter Gulch exists entirely because of Denali National Park; I feel like Franz Josef has the same relationship with its namesake glacier further up the valley.  There are glacier hikes, glacier ice climbing, glacier valley walks, glacier helicopter rides, glacier hot pools (that sounds like an oxymoron; though if I had the money I think they would be fun to try out)…   In fact, the town seems to be so synonymous with the glacier that the non-glacier stuff in the town didn’t even rate a mention in my guidebook.   There is apparently a kiwi breeding center here – I’m taking a tour on Wednesday, and there are, supposedly, glowworms in a few places nearby.   I hiked up to the glowworm tunnels earlier today, but I didn’t bring a flashlight, so I didn’t go very far in.   The tunnel is a 1500 foot long water diversion, which was initially dug to transport water for gold sluicing operations around 1900.    The tunnel is still open, which is interesting because in the US, the whole tunnel would have either been sealed off, or the entrances buried, to keep people from wandering in and getting into trouble.    Here, the entrance is wide open, and there’s a sign telling you to watch your head.   I didn’t go in more than fifty feet, because the only light I had was the flashlight function on my cell phone.  I didn’t know how fast the torch would drain the phone’s battery – and didn’t particularly want to find out when half-way down a pitch black water diversion tunnel two miles from town.   There was about three inches of water in the tunnel, but the footing was decent.   I also saw several tui on the walk out there; this is a native bird with an enlarged white patch on the throat, kind of like a goiter.  

            I did my interview with the glacier guiding company in Franz the next day.   There were three of us interviewees, and we went up on the ice with one of the senior guides for most of the morning.   It was raining fairly steadily; around 7am when I got up, there were some short deluges – the kind of rain that is so loud and intense that everyone in the room glances at the windows and immediately looks a tiny bit more dissatisfied with their lot in life.   The rain had dropped back to a slower, persistent drenching when we left the main building to head out to the glacier.   We walked for a half an hour to get to the fence keeping out the people who weren’t on guided tours, and from there hiked up a tall gravel moraine to an entry point to the ice partway up the glacier.   

            The sheer amount of logistics that come into play to keep the glacier accessible to these large numbers of tourists is really pretty impressive – I had no idea that keeping the ice trails in such good shape was so labor-intensive.   When we got there, there were maybe four or five people dotted up the face of the glacier all swinging ice axes and gouging out steps.   Apparently the steps all have to be recut, or at least, touched up, every day, and the whole trail network is checked for hazards.   The walking was a little tricky with the crampons at first, but thanks to all of this hard work, the footing was generally good.  The sizes of the groups that go up here are, by my usual standards, enormous – eleven guests per guide on the ice, and something like twenty-seven guests per guide on the level walking portion.    We walked back with a guest group to get back to the bus (AJ was staying on the ice to meet a half-day trip in the afternoon) and the length of the line of people straggling behind us as we were walking out felt a little ridiculous.   At least the glacier tour clients are easy to spot – they’re all wearing bright blue guest rain jackets and red crampon bags.   

            The job, if I get it, will be tough, and I am somewhat concerned that the sheer amount of logistics work and safety concerns inherent in these tours will run roughshod over most of the parts of guiding that I enjoy  the most – talking to people, and sharing with them the things that are interesting about an area.   This came up a little bit in my interview – I don’t particularly want a job that’s all tough labor in the rain without any of the upsides of being able to share a place with people.   With the increased logistics work, and the larger group sizes, I am a little unsure how this sort of guiding might turn out.   

            I ‘ve also been in contact with a boat company in on the east coast, and left a message, but haven’t heard back yet.   This is the same place that was supposed to get back to me last week about a date for an interview, but didn’t, which is partly why I came out to Franz Josef first.   However, if they are as disorganized in person as they appear to be over email, there’s always a chance that they might not have finished their seasonal hiring.   I might bus my way over there later this week.   (I have two more nights booked at the hostel here in Franz, but I haven’t quite figured out where I’m going next.   I might also head up to Abel Tasman and the Marlborough area and see what things look like up there.   I feel like I would really enjoy spending time in the warmer, more ocean-ish parts of New Zealand.   Another undeniable downside of a job at the glacier is that I would be spending my whole time in the country in a place that’s cold, wet, glaciated, and looks like Alaska , but with tree ferns.   I didn’t realize until I got here that actually travelling, and, dare I say it, being a tourist, would in any way appeal to me.   I’m a little worried that since I’ve been staying in hostels, and have been exclusively hanging out with other foreign travellers, that the drinking-in-as-many-cities-as-possible mentality is unduly influencing my own ideas of how I’m going to spend the next six months of my life.   (Though I will note that for the record, I am not in on the drinking scene at all.   Not worth the expense.    Plus, tea at the hostels is generally free, and caffeine is more my drug of choice anyway.)   One thing I took away from my two days on a bus to get down here from Christchurch is that the vegetation and landscapes really do change about every three hours of travelling.   I’ve never lived anywhere else where it was this easy to get from climate zone to another.   Plus, there is the undeniable fact that the weather will be better in almost any other corner of the country that I care to visit.   I’ve said before that the only reason that I can work in Alaska every summer and get soaked, and wet, and grow mold on my clothing, and still stay cheerful about it is that after four months, the lodge closes and I have to do something else.   

            Tomorrow, I have another short meeting in town, and then I’m visiting the kiwi center.   (I plan on asking if there is any possibility that they will be hiring anyone for the busy season, although I feel like it’s kind of a long shot.)   A friend from the aquarium once told me that when he visited New Zealand, one thing that struck him was the noticeable lack of any interpretation in their national parks – at least, not on the scale which it is practiced in national parks in the US.   There were all of these wonderful, fascinating, beautiful scenic areas, but there were very little guided walks or interpretive contact.   Today in the interview, one of the managers mentioned something that seems very telling about New Zealand tourism.   Basically, to make a sweeping generalization about the clientele that tend to come here, they are (according to him) twenty-year-olds on a gap year who are drinking their way around the world, and want to walk around on a glacier before heading off to Queenstown to drink some more, and possibly bungee-jump off of bridges.   This, according to him, is more or less what New Zealand tourism is known for, and a percentage of this sort of clientele just isn’t interested in how glaciers form, or their effect on the landscape, or plastic flow, or how crevasses form, or any of it.   From what I’ve seen, this seems pretty true.   Of course, one can easily make such sweeping generalizations about Alaska tourism as well – newly wed, overfed and nearly dead, is the expression about the folks who visit the state on cruise ships.   But the one thing that I most enjoyed about the clients I worked with at both the aquarium and the lodge is how interested they were about learning things while they were there.   

            One thing  I’ve taken away form this is how lucky I am to have ended up guiding for such a boutique operation as the Iceberg Lodge.   Our clients are interested in the natural history, they’re not (usually) on a booze cruise program, and they’re present in small enough numbers, and for a long enough duration of time that I have a decent stab at learning all of their names.  

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